How much does your family history define you?

Title: girlchild: [a novel]  Cover artwork for Girlchild

Author: Tupelo Hassman

Publisher & Release Date: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012

The Hook: A cover with an old-style library check out card* and a 2013 Alex Award winner. (The Alex Awards recognize “ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults.”) The Girl Scout angle didn’t hurt either.

The Lowdown (From jacket copy): Rory Hendrix is the least likely of Girl Scouts. She hasn’t got a troop or even a badge to call her own. But she’s checked the Handbook out from the elementary school library so many times that her name fills all the lines on the card, and she pores over its surreal advice (Disposal of Outgrown Uniforms; The Right Use of Your Body; Finding Your Way When Lost) for tips to get off the Calle: that is, Calle de los Flores, the Reno trailer park where she lives with her mother, Jo, the sweet-faced, hard-luck bartender at the Truck Stop.

Rory’s been told she is “third generation in a line of apparent imbeciles, feeble-minded bastards surely on the road to whoredom.” But she’s determined to prove the County and her own family wrong. Brash, sassy, vulnerable, wise, and terrified, she struggles with her mother’s habit of trusting the wrong men, and the mixed blessing of being too smart for her own good. From diary entries, social worker’s reports, half-recalled memories, story problems, arrest records, family lore, Supreme Court opinions, and her grandmother’s letters, Rory crafts a devastating collage that shows us her world while she searches for the way out of it.

Overall Impressions: I want to quote endlessly from this book to show the vivid storytelling and the different tools utilized. I want you to meet Rory, who leaps off the page as she alternately puzzles through and rages at the life that is and eventually defies it for a life that could be.

Two-thirds of the way through girlchild, Rory receives an assignment to write a paper on the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection before the law. And here she encounters Buck vs. Bell, a 1927 U.S. Supreme Court ruling wherein the court essentially affirmed state governments having the right to sterilize “feeble-minded” and “socially inadequate” people without their consent.

“…[Chief Justice Oliver Wendell] Holmes was so concerned about the importance of good breeding even the Fourteenth Amendment didn’t give him pause. He well understood the amendment’s notion of one’s right to one’s own body and to one’s own plans, and hopes, and dreams for that body, but he just couldn’t see what that unalienable human right had to do with the obvious defective before him.”

“Since Mr. Justice had no problem bringing his gavel down on Carrie, if he could swing that thing so blind in her case, it’s hard for me to believe he would have had any problem hammering it home in the case of Hendrix v., had we been in her position.” (p. 174)

This, I think, is where the rage comes into Rory’s story. She tells it in pieces and out of order, through weird story problems with uncomfortable multiple choice answers, and through selections of her mother’s story in recollections and case worker files, for that is part of her own story. Some chapters, dealing with Rory’s molestation by a neighbor, are entirely blacked out and all the more chilling for it. Her rage, controlled and lit, comes out toward the end.

I feel as if girlchild doesn’t really come to an end, just the close of this part of Rory’s story.

This would be an excellent choice for a book club. I plan to suggest it to mine.

The Highs: Rory Dawn Hendrix and her raw and compelling voice.

The fervent hope and desire that Rory’s mother and grandmother have for her to make it out of all the things that trapped them. “…Grandma had these words to say, quietly, over coffee and oatmeal, over RC and bologna sandwiches, ‘Someone’s got to make it and it has to be you,’ her sweet, sick Grandma smell mixing with the smoke of her cigarettes, the cold breeze from the Calle, and the sage-and-sandpaper sound of her voice, pushing me to do it, to take my chance, to make belief.” (p. 251)

The writing.

Buzzkills: This is more of a warning for possible triggers, but child molestation and parental alcoholism.

The Source: Borrowed (and overdue) from public library

Disclaimer: No chocolate or playing cards were provided by the publisher for this review.

*The trade paperback has a different cover, no library check-out slip.


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